To mark 2,000 years since Ovid’s death (a classical poet particularly favoured by William Shakespeare), the RSC is currently running a ‘Rome’ season – as part of this, Gregory Doran’s puppet version of Venus and Adonis has been revived for a short run in the Swan Theatre. The narrative poem, dedicated to the Earl of Southampton, was inspired by Ovid’ Metamorphoses. You may remember that Scena Mundi ran a FORUM event that explored the poem and its context earlier in the year.
Venus falls in love with the youth Adonis, so the legend goes, and tries everything she can to seduce him – but he is stubbornly resistant to her efforts. As time goes on, he longs to leave the spot in the forest where Venus has kept him, and so tries to bargain his way out: he’ll give her a kiss if she then agrees to let him go. This only serves to increase Venus’ desire for him, though she eventually lets him go after failing to dissuade him from hunting wild boar. The next morning she encounters what she had previously feared: Adonis savaged to death by the boar. She curses Love to be forever tinged with sadness, jealousy and loss, then leaves with the flower that appeared on the site of Adonis’ death.
The production was inspired by a visit Doran made to Osaka (where Bunraku originated); those performances had puppetry flanked by a narrator and musician, telling the sort of stories Shakespeare is renowned for. It was brought about in conjunction with Little Angel Theatre, and combines several different styles of puppet throughout the 65-minute performance. It begins and ends with marionettes, though there are also larger scale figures and shadow puppetry employed at various moments.
The main focus is on the unmistakable designs of Lyndie Wright with the one-third life-size rod puppets of Venus and Adonis. They are operated with incredible skill, and provide a surprising amount of physical comedy – particularly in Adonis’ reactions to Venus’ behaviour, and struggling to hold her weight as she flings herself at him. The additional animal figures are also wonderful, from the amorous horses to the menacing boar; these puppets allow for good use of the main stage, as well as coming in and out through the audience as a bit of variety.
It would work almost perfectly on the Swan’s thrust stage were it not for the positioning of the narrator and guitarist. Instead of, perhaps, being seated at the back of the stage (either side of the frame), they are sat about a third of the way forward – obscuring the frame entirely for many sat in the side sections. For a short show it’s simply unacceptable to miss the main attractions because the stage layout hasn’t been properly considered. From head on I’m sure it seems to work wonderfully, but the significant number of people sat in side seats have been forgotten.
Aside from the slight disappointment at missing some things if you’re sat on the side, it really is a beautiful piece of theatre. It makes you wonder why it’s not more prevalent – if small theatre companies can make abridged version of plays for their actors, surely the same could be done with puppets in mind? It would work wonderfully somewhere like the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, or a modern style theatre such as the West Yorkshire Playhouse or the National’s Dorfman Theatre. Even Shakespeare’s Globe, if the puppets were appropriately sized (946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips worked well in that venue with several puppet contributions). I look forward to more combinations of two of my favourite things in theatre in the future!
My verdict? A beautiful piece of theatre, and a perfect way to bring this narrative poem to the stage – the puppetry is outstanding.
Venus and Adonis runs at the Swan Theatre (RSC Stratford-upon-Avon) until 4 August 2017. Tickets are available online or from the box office.